There are two types of albums. Those that play out like a series of connected songs, the only uniting factor being the artist at the helm. And those that tell a cohesive story, not necessarily unfolding in a linear fashion but through a well-constructed aesthetic. This aesthetic can come down to a variety of factors, from production choices to recurring lyrical motifs. When entering the realm of Outkast’s ATLiens, it’s impossible to ignore its extraterrestrial nature, given life through several harmonious factors. Not only is the album’s title evocative of science fiction, but the musical soundscapes crafted by Organized Noize and Kast themselves mirror the genre’s most oft-associated qualities. From start to finish, Kast’s sophomoric project is lined with sparse, isolationist arrangements, anchored to Earth through the homespun groove of a bass guitar.
Originally released on August 27th, 1996, ATLiens has aged particularly gracefully. Despite the fact that OutKast has since solidified themselves as the benchmark to which hip-hop groups aspire to be held, their minimalist masterpiece remains one of their defining bodies of work. Though Kast fans can and will hold endless debates over their crowning achievements, ATLiens is a mainstay in the top three. Boasting timeless classics like the title track, “2 Dope Boyz,” “Wheelz Of Steel,” the brooding “Elevators,” and “Millennium,” which features one of the smoothest entries in recorded history. “Me and everything around me is unstable like Chernobyl,” raps Andre 3000, in the track’s opening second. “Ready to go at any moment, jumpin’ like a pogo stick.”
Pairing together imaginative imagery with real-world reports from the Dungeon, both Big Boi and Andre form two sides of a similarily well-rounded coin. Though the latter has become a recurring selection in (insert Top 5 here), the former provides a rough-around-the-edges counterpart, no less wise but perhaps a little wilder. That’s not to say Three Stacks is a square in any sense; across the project, he dances effortlessly over each soundscape, striking an imposing presence off the strength of his technical prowess alone. We’ve long heard Lil Wayne compare himself to a Martian, but OutKast were the original otherworldly visitors, singlehandedly changing the public perception of mid-nineties Southern songwriting. Suddenly, Atlanta was home to not one, but two of the game’s best lyricists. And the pair didn’t even have to pander in the slightest.
From start to finish, ATLiens never compromises its visionary nature. Conceptual in the slightest fashion, Kast remains unafraid to let a moment breathe, letting soothing synthesizers and faint vocal samples speak on their behalf. There are moments in which tension unfolds like a supernova in slow motion, almost Kubrick-esque, hip-hop’s very own Space Odyssey. And much like its cinematic counterpart, ATLiens was miles ahead of its time; perhaps a single year in Outkast’s world might equate to five in our reality. It might explain why revisiting the project makes it sound all the more refined. Should alien life ever discover Earth, we can only hope that ATLiens finds its way onto their playlists.